“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I knew the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
— Albert Einstein
“Always the more beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”
— e.e. cummings
When entering the realms of creativity and leading others along the way, asking a more beautiful question is the touchstone. Leading others depends upon how well we are leading our creative selves. You’re “not very creative,” you say? Not to worry.
David and Tom Kelly, the co-founders of IDEO, the innovative design firm in California, have written several compelling books on creativity and innovation. In their book Creative Confidence (Crown, 2013) they suggest that being creative doesn’t require great gifts or talents; you already have what it takes to be creative. They believe, and it’s a belief that I deeply share, that being creative is a matter of believing that we can be more than what we’ve been or done before.
They suggest it’s about establishing a growth mindset, which is the deep-seated belief that our true potentials are still unknown. Isn’t that beautiful?
Sometimes there comes a point in our lives when we tend to surrender to the past and accept the notion that what we were is and ever shall be what we will continue to be. How inhibiting! Let’s not do that anymore. As V.S. Naipaul once said, “…we can only become the ideas we have of our own possibilities.”
I know how hard it is. When we reach a certain stage in life there are many forces that seem to militate against looking to the future and believing in our own possibilities. My answer to that is to fight harder against those forces by asking more beautiful questions of ourselves.
- More beautiful questions are those that ignite the spark that gives us energy to dream. Beautiful questions launch inspiring journeys that are capable of taking us to places we seldom go unless prompted. Beautiful questions begin with such phrases as:
How might I make this better?
Why am I doing this this way?
What business am I really in?
Why are we in business?
- Constructing more beautiful questions can sometimes be a matter of shifting or re-framing how we ask. Rather than ask, “Can I become more creative?” which requires a blunt yes or no answer, we could ask instead “How might I become more creative? which is a more expansive, open-ended way of framing the question that is call to action rather than a dead stop.
- We’re out of practice when it comes to thinking imaginatively. When was the last time you were asked: “If you could ride a rainbow what would it feel like?” Or, “If you had an elephant’s trunk, what could you smell?” Those kinds of questions put us into a different headspace. I know I haven’t asked imaginative questions in my classes. I rationalize by saying, “there’s no time,” or “I need to cover this material,” or “that’s not very practical.” I could make such questions very practical if I associated them with a problem that I wanted to solve in a creative way. What a loss to my students. I’m trying not to do that anymore. I’m trying to reclaim more beautiful and creative questions for myself and for the people I lead and to make time for reflection, speculation and riding rainbows.
- Not all questions enlist our imaginations. Sometimes we need to ask questions that clarify or expand an idea. Or, when thinking critically, we need to analyze or evaluate it in order to make logical sense of it. However, when we want to think creatively, the questions we ask need to be different.
More beautiful questions are best framed in uncertain terms.
If I ask you: What is this?
Logically, you would probably say, “a pen, or a writing instrument,” or a “fountain pen,” or even a “an attractive fountain pen.” But if I said, “What might this be?” you are more likely to start rhyming off the possibilities such as a head scratcher, a hidden camera, a lock pick, a secret weapon, a recorder, a power tool….
- More beautiful questions can also probe for what could be there that doesn’t presently exist, or is missing. Amy Herman, in her absolutely brilliant book on Visual Intelligence (Houghton-Mifflin, 2016) calls it the “pertinent negative,” which is the absence of something that either could or should be there that, if noticed, could give us insight into a situation or improve the quality of our lives. Herman illustrates the skill of looking for the pertinent negative by quoting from dialogue between Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Gregory of Scotland Yard.
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention, Mr. Holmes,” asks Gregory.
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time”
“That was the curious incident.”
The murderer was someone the victim, and the dog both knew. Sometimes we take what we don’t see for granted. Instead we need to be asking, “What’s missing in our lives at home or at work?” “What should be there but isn’t?”
- More beautiful questions are compelling. We are eager to reflect and respond to them.
“What possibilities might lie ahead?”
“How might I be the best leader for my organization that I can be?”
“What question, if answered, might make the difference to my future? To my organization’s future?
“How do I stay inspired and find ways to inspire the people I lead?”
What is your more beautiful question?